Membranes is one of the most popular of my works. Several people recently ordered prints, including Tyler Volk, whose book Metapatterns is a brilliant scientific and poetic book about my favorite topic: patterns in nature (more about this in a future blog). Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight loves her print. So I decided to feature it this week on my blog.
Every cell in every living organism is enclosed in a membrane. Membranes define what is inside and what is outside. A membrane called skin encloses our physical body; it’s what people call our “birthday suit.” Even our psyches and societies have membranes, habits of thought and social customs defining “us” as different from “them.” Without membranes there would be only one undifferentiated “soup” of existence. Cell membranes don’t just separate; they also allow movement between inside and outside, making sharing and growth possible. Analogously, the concept of “I” or “me” can expand as we mature and learn about others, while still retaining a sense of who we are. In life, there is no escaping the containment of membranes, the existence of an “it.”
On the purely chemical-biological level, every cell membrane is made of two layers of molecules called phospholipids. In the painting, the part of the molecule represented by a dot is attracted to the water that is both inside and outside the cell; the part shown as a little tail repels water. There are proteins embedded in the membrane, acting like gates through which food and minerals pass in and waste products out. Within the cell there are “organelles” also made up of the same phospholipid membranes –— folded, pleated and balloon-like containers — where the business of maintaining life is carried on: food is metabolized into energy, cell repair work is done, wastes are carried away.
I created this painting in 2007 at the Meditation and the Spirit of Creativity retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center a few months after completing a summer course in cell biology. I began with a somewhat-textbook-diagram-based cell in the upper left corner. Then the large circular form metamorphosed into the head of the entire human body with hands and a large tubular mucous-lined cavity running from mouth to anus. Out of the mouth came more membranous shapes: puffs of breath, and words, too, which themselves are containers of meaning. In another fluid-filled container, a womb, a baby is waiting to be born, floating in an ocean of color squiggles that represent not just ancestral microorganisms but the countless numbers of molecules - proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, amino acids, fats and minerals -- that come together every nanosecond to dance the intricate dance of life.